By Eric Teniola
TILL date Chief Ernest Adegunle Oladeinde Shonekan (82) had the shortest tenure as Head of State of this country. He assumed office on August 23, 1993 and was overthrown on November 17, 1993. Recently, he spoke in Abuja on political parties, the media and the integrity of the electoral process. He declared: “The end result is that rather than seeing themselves as adversaries, both the political parties and the mass media should henceforth see themselves as partners in progress in our march to building an enduring democracy. Perhaps, our starting point is to first have a working idea of what democracy is and what it is all about in a federal setting like ours.
The Lexicon Webster dictionary defines democracy as “Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them or their elected agents”. Simply put, therefore, “democracy is government of the people by the people and for the people”. Indeed, according to Osita Eze in his book, The Legislature and Political Economy in a democracy, the people or the electorate have, among others, the capacity to choose, direct and control those who govern them and to terminate their mandate, even if it is periodically, right not just to be represented, but also to participate in decision making process and implementation at various levels of government and ultimately, to shape the national political economy.
All over the world, the mass media are regarded as the Fourth estate of the realm. They check the excesses of the three arms of the government- the executive, legislature and the judiciary. Their ability to effectively discharge such duties depends, to a large extent, on the society, historical factors and the constitutional provisions of the press to operate fully.
Right from the colonial days, Nigeria has had a relatively free press. During that period, official persecution and prosecution of pressmen by the colonial bureaucracy were relatively few and press freedom was not seriously threatened in any of the British West African colonies. Hence, the indigenous African newspapers were almost unavoidably highly critical of the colonial administration. Today, although Nigeria claims to have one of the freest presses in Africa, surprisingly there is no special position in the country’s constitution for press freedom. Instead, freedom of the press is derived from the general freedom of the citizens to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference (otherwise called the right to freedom of expression and the press). In the new dispensation, the roles of the mass media to inform, educate, entertain and to set agenda derive from section 39 (1) of the 1999 constitution which states, inter alia that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart idea and information without interference.
Simply put, political parties are registered political associations that try to wrest political power from each other through the ballot box and put in place their programmes as stated in their manifestos. For one thing, opposition parties often accuse the political party in power of wanting to perpetuate itself in office. Parties accuse each other of election malpractices. The tendency by political incumbents to sit tight in office and, in the process, device unconstitutional methods to win elections constitute threat to democracy, especially in a plural society like ours. They also evoke sharp media criticisms and fuel electoral violence.
On their part, the media, especially the opposition press, have been accused of not exercising enough self-censorship in matters bordering on the political process, election in particular. There were also allegations that some sections of the media openly danced to the “piper’s tune” by allowing themselves to be used by their owners to castigate the personalities of the political elite and to scurrilously attack the political party in power. In some cases, there were allegations that some of them have been used to promote ethno-political interests to the detriment of our national unity. That is not to say that the opposition media have not played positive roles in ensuring an enduring democratic culture in the country.
That said, let me also say that no human institution is perfect. Democracy, in particular, grows over time and, like old wine, the longer it is allowed to grow the more enduring it becomes. Even the Americans with more than a century of experience in democratic governance is still growing. Only last year, the Americans found an occasion to test the resilience of their electoral process when Al Gore, the democratic presidential candidate asked for a recount of votes in Florida and a few other states. Their media did not call for the head of Al Gore for daring to call for vote recount neither did they call for a military takeover in that country. Rather, they allow the provisions of their constitution to prevail. Although the presidential election was comprehensively reported, the issue at stake was also resolved- all in the interest of the nation and national unity.
For us, the lesson to take home from the American experience is that in building an enduring democratic culture, politicians are bound to make mistakes, but they must be allowed to learn through the correction of such mistakes. They could be chastised by our media, but it would be uncharitable of the media to suggest anything short of constitutional means of restoring mistakes on the part of political parties or the political class.
All said, a society gets the type of mass media to be more engaged in agenda setting for development and to defend the constitution. Nigerians must themselves refrain from calling on the military to scuttle democracy each time a democratic government is perceived as non-performing or when a political party is perceived to have employed unconstitutional means to either win an election or to stay in power. Often always too, Nigerians are too quick to forget that the right to reject a political party or its candidate resides with the people at the polls. The media, therefore, must educate Nigerians on the need to always support democracy, to make it work and for us to have an enduring culture of democracy in the new millennium.”